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Focus

Tuesday 14th November 2023

The Beaverwood Chislehurst, Kent

This was the third time I’d seen the Dutch band in the space of a year and I realised after leaving the latest gig at the splendid Beaverwood Club that in that time I’d changed from viewing them as an interesting curiosity, a band from my youth still active, to having a real appreciation and love for the quality of their musical legacy as well as enormous admiration for the four musicians that perform their unique compositions.

I recalled seeing them on Top of The Pops in the early seventies performing two of their huge hits, ‘Sylvia’ and ‘Hocus Pocus’. Even in the richly diverse musical landscape of that decade the latter of those two stood out as an unusual track to be getting mainstream attention, with the falsetto yodelling of keyboard player and founding member Thijs Van Leer appearing to be as idiosyncratic as any of the one hit wonder singers of the time, like Joe Dolce or Clive Dunn (and many others, Don Estelle doing ‘Whispering Grass’ anyone?).

My slightly older cousin Viv was a big fan and would be spotted with ‘Moving Waves’ under her arm, so they clearly had some cred’. More important than my cousin’s approval was the fact that Jan Akkerman was in the original line up, so that made them intriguing. However, apart from reading album reviews back in the day, they more or less retreated from my consciousness until I had the opportunity to see them live for the first time.

The thing that sets them apart as a legacy live band is the energy and musicianship that founder member Thijs Van Leer and drummer Pierre Van Der Linden, who joined the band in 1971, still display onstage as well as the way they have incorporated two superb younger musicians in the form of guitarist Menno Gootjes and bassist Udo Pannekeet into the line up to form a strong collectively close musical unit.

It’s a testament to the melodic inventiveness of their music that a long set of instrumentals (I’m counting the odd addition of enhanced vocals from TVL as another instrument as that is how they are used, to add another melodic layer, rather than deliver a lyric) managed to completely captivate the audience. Each of their compositions has a number of varying musical elements as well as changes of tempo and attack, with each of the four instruments playing an interesting role to create a richly harmonic collaboration.

Their set incorporated many fan favourites, ‘Focus 1’, ‘House Of The King’, ‘Eruption’, ‘Focus 7’ and so on, most of which develop into extended versions, none more so than their explosive rendition of ‘Hocus Pocus’ which featured a fifteen minute odd drum solo from Pierre Van Linden. This was rather egging the pudding but was both physically and musically impressive. The drummer has the face of a philosopher from a much earlier age and radiated a restrained energy that seemed liable to burst out into something wilder at any moment.

Udo Pannekeet on six string bass had an equally studious air and played beautifully, to the extent that it was possible to tune into his complex counterpoint playing and get lost in the flow of his fingers. Menno Gootjes, super cool in a leather jacket, played some simply stunning guitar; melodically clear on numbers like ‘Sylvia’ or crunching out power chords before unleashing clusters of notes played at high speed but always maintaining a constructive dynamic to his soloing rather than meandering down a repetitive worm hole, as many power players do.

Leading the band from behind his keyboard in a jaunty cap, from under which his white hair flowed, was Thijs Van Leer, a benign, avuncular and reassuringly charismatic figure who seems to enjoy performing as much as the audience enjoyed seeing him and the band. Occasionally adding flute he was almost like a one-man band in himself, conjuring a range of sounds and tones from his keyboard like a magician.

All four of the band members added a strong element to the gigantic musical landscape they created on the night, all virtuosos but combining to form a cohesive whole. It is incredible that the band seem to be touring as much as they ever did and continue to play at an astonishingly high level. They are simply brilliant live, an unmissable act really.

Simon Green

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